There are two great "breathers" in popular music. One is Van Morrison: "She gives me love (huhh), love (huhh), love (huhh), love (huhh), crazy love." The other is Mavis Staples: "(Huhh, huhh, ohh) Let me take you there." For both, the audible sound of their breathing on their records enhances the rhythmic qualities of the music; and in Mavis' case it added the undeniable tinge of sex to the preachings of the Staple Singers that drove them up the charts (it didn't hurt Van the Man in the sex appeal department either). No less than Mr. LoveSexy himself, Prince, recognized Mavis' appeal and produced her overlooked record, Time Waits For No One. It is practically a cliché to recall that it was the confluence of the church and the delights of the flesh that helped create rock and roll, but no one embodies this more than Mavis Staples.
We'll Never Turn Back concentrates more on the spiritual side of her persona, with the worldliness directed towards the serious subject of freedom songs. For anyone who thinks that a song like J. B Lenoir's "Down In Mississippi" is something out of the distant past, Staples' ad-libbed, half-spoken stories of discrimination from her youth remind us that this has all been perpetrated on people currently living. She hammers home the record's relevance in her self-penned "My Own Eyes," as in, "I saw New Orleans, I saw people left for dead."
Lest you suspect a big downer, Staples' music, like the blues, offers catharsis rather than depression despite the subject matter. Ry Cooder's production and playing help her achieve joyful release on tunes like "Eyes On The Prize" (backed by South Africa's Ladysmith Black Mambazo, no strangers to discrimination themselves); and "99 and 1/2," with co-production and loops by Joachim Cooder that could propel it into a dance floor hit.
Politics aside, my favorite Ry Cooder records have either been his soundtracks or his work behind great singers, like the two records he produced for Bobby King and Terry Evans, and of course, John Hiatt's Bring The Family. We'll Never Turn Back delivers the same musical rewards, including the always amazing drumming of Jim Keltner. And make no mistake about it: at 67 years old, Mavis is still sexy. But in light of the Supreme Court's rollback of women's reproductive rights, it has become harder to put politics aside, and suddenly the title song seems terribly important. • Michael Ross